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Wife. Mother. Lover. Goddess.

Representing desire, ideal beauty, original sin and maternal fertility, the female nude is ubiquitous in the history of art. First emerging as a standard of ideal beauty in the ancient world, the subject has become an endless source of inspiration for artists over the centuries. The female body has come to represent a myriad of themes, at once sensual and beautiful, evoking a desire that is ever unattainable. She is mother, wife, lover and goddess, existing in both mythical worlds and domestic realms that are personal and comforting.

Au Naturel: The Art of the Female Form explores this ever-alluring subject through over four centuries of fine art, contemplating the styles, artists and themes that have defined and redefined the nude over the centuries. Exploring the subject from the perspectives of myth, religion, allegory and everyday life, these works reveal the cultural and symbolic importance of the nude in their respective ages, as well as the innumerable ways the female figure has been interpreted, displayed, viewed and celebrated.

The Golden Age:
17th-Century 

Dutch Painting

The Golden Age:
17th-Century 
Dutch Painting

The Golden Age: 17th-Century Dutch Painting

A VIRTUAL EXHIBITION

The Dutch Republic of the 17th century enjoyed a period of unprecedented wealth and prosperity that became known as the Dutch Golden Age. Along with the economy, the arts flourished in the small European nation, revolutionizing the way art was made – and for whom. The Golden Age: 17th-Century Dutch Art presents a glimpse into this rich and intriguing era in the history of art through an exploration of the unparalleled riches and cultural confidence of the age.


The Golden Age:
17th-Century 

Dutch Painting

The Golden Age:
17th-Century 
Dutch Painting

A VIRTUAL EXHIBITION

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Route Enneigée avec Maison, Environs d'Éragny by Camille Pissarro

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Lyora Pissarro

Lyora, the daughter of Lélia, represents the fifth generation of Pissarro family painters. She is renowned for her colorful, geometric landscapes that celebrate her artistic heritage despite their break with the impressionist tradition. The artist describes her works as creative journeys, “often winding, mostly enchanting and hopefully uplifting.” Monumental and whimsical, her topographical creations represent the Pissarro legacy of artistry updated for a 21st-century audience.

Memories of Snow by Lélia Pissarro

b. 1991

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Bords de l’Oise, Environs de Pontoise by Camille Pissarro

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Edgar Degas
Dancer Fastening the String of Her Tights

Across art history, artists almost always depicted nude figures within contexts that were removed from everyday life, choosing to veil them in a cloak of mythology or religion. Until modern times, this was primarily to avoid offending moral standards of the day, but, for many artists, subjects based in mythology also heightened ties with the classical past. The Renaissance saw a rise in the nude as a respectable subject in art, due, in part, to the rediscovery of sculptures and pottery from antiquity during the 13th century. Artists began to include the nude — either unclothed or partially clothed — in their works as a tool to refine their understanding of perspective, volume and, of course, anatomy. These artists still had to consider that in certain contexts, the nude was considered taboo, but within the careful constraints of mythology, the nudity and eroticism of a scene could be deemed acceptable and even moral.

Venus, the goddess of love, or the sexual conquests of Zeus were naturally popular subjects. These types of mythological tales gave artists ample opportunity to explore themes of lust and debauchery through the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods. Because they were separate from reality, these narratives allowed painters to present nudes that were erotic and seductive.

Émile Munier
L'amour Désarmé

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Art is not immune to religious influence throughout history, and the subject of the nude often reflected this considerable influence. For Christians — who represented the vast majority of European patrons for centuries —the nude image could evoke feelings of desire, anxiety, guilt or contempt. A symbol of original sin extending back to the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, the unclothed body is a source of conflict in religious art to this day.

While the popularity of the nude in religious art has ebbed and flowed with the ages, the body has always been used to represent certain ideals. Depictions of the Madonna evoke notions of purity and innocence, while those of Salome represent the sins of lust and vanity. Presented in these contexts, the nude was a lesson in morality for the pious viewer.

Artus Wolffort
Bath of Esther in the House of Ahasuerus

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The female nude can represent more than just a maternal ideal or object of desire. It can serve as a visual representation of morals and complex ideas significant to the artist, cultural attitudes or issues of the era. Historically for artists, one of the most effective ways to use the nude to convey meaning is through allegory.

Using symbols and visual metaphors, an allegorical painting presents an artistic landscape with a hidden significance that is just waiting to be discovered by the viewer. The artist depends on the viewer to decipher the work’s inner meaning, allowing for endless interpretations of a scene rife with visual motifs.

The nude is a particularly rich addition to the allegorical tradition in art. Not only does the form make manifest some of the most essential aspects of humanity and existence such as love, nature, virtue and justice, the female body can also be paired with other motifs to represent abstract concepts such as the Five Senses or the Four Seasons.

Pierre-Amédée Marcel-Béronneau
Ondine

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The modern age bore witness to immense change in cultural attitudes. Artists consequently began to bring the female nude up to date by capturing the female body with a naturalism that first shocked, and then delighted modern audiences. These figures appeared increasingly in contexts outside of the confines of historical, religious or mythological subject matter, presented instead as real, contemporary women in the intimate spaces of their home or even in a secluded outdoor space.

This new modernity in setting and subject matter for the female nude necessitated a change in style as well. Nudes moved away from the idealized bodies seen in Academicism to a style that evoked a sense of a spontaneous, fleeting moment in time — a moment in which these figures could conceivably exist. These nudes were thus more casual, raw and realistic in order to effectively convey the naturalism desired by modern painters.

In their reimagining of the nude, these artists refused to conform to convention. Unsurprisingly, they were sometimes met with cries of indecency and immorality from critics and the public alike, but these everyday subjects also resulted in a voyeuristic appeal that resonated with audiences of the era. They often toe the line between modesty and erotism — a slip of the garment, a glimpse of a bosom, a coy gaze — endowing them with both innocence and an intentional sensuality.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Après le bain

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historic French Quarter 

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New Orleans, LA 70130


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March 26 - June 4, 2022
Monday - Saturday
9:00 am - 5:15 pm

FREE ADMISSION

GALLERY EXHIBITION

M.S. Rau Gallery
622 Royal Street
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MYTHOLOGY

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March 26 - June 4, 2022
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On view now through June 4th

Watch the latest webinar with our Fine Art experts:

Enjoy a deep dive into M.S. Rau’s latest exhibition Au Naturel: The Art of the Female Form with a riveting discussion between our panel of experts. 

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Explore the major themes of the exhibition with 4th Generation Owner and Vice President of Acquisitions, Rebecca Rau.